Top spot in the Premier League beckoned this evening but Everton showed themselves to be utterly unworthy of it as Aston Villa secured their first victory since returning to the top flight.
The gallows humour among Evertonians ahead of this first trip to Villa Park since the spring of 2016 centred around Jack Grealish’s unwanted record of 20 successive defeats in England’s top division and the fact that the newly-promoted Midlanders were searching for their first point of the campaign. The “Here Come Everton” memes abounded, of course, countered by pleas for fans to instill some faith in Marco Silva’s men, who came into the match on a six-match unbeaten run that stretched back to the 2-0 reverse at Fulham towards the end of last term.
The result and the performance that under-pinned it for the most part, were unsurprising — it was all just depressingly familiar; another potentially strong start to a season undermined by a display that served to highlight rather than mask the deficiencies that still exist in this Everton team.
It would be remiss not to give credit to Villa who sensed a shift in momentum after they exposed cracks in Everton’s early dominance midway through the first half and capitalised with the kind of energy in midfield and incisiveness in the final third that the visitors too often lacked to score the opening goal.
Dean Smith’s team harried and hassled the Blues throughout, frustrated them into testy exchanges, forced errors from Silva’s midfield and, for long spells, blocked almost everything Everton threw at them. And when they couldn’t, either the woodwork intervened or they were left thanking their lucky stars that composure in front of goal deserted Dominic Calvert-Lewin in the first half and then Lucas Digne and, more glaringly, Theo Walcott at the death.
Then, they capitalised on Everton’s desperate push for an injury-time equaliser by scything through and killing the match through Anwar El Ghazi — the finishing touch on a miserable evening for the Toffees.
If there is some solace to be taken it’s that, Walcott aside, the Everton team that finished the match looks a good deal more dangerous than the one that started it. If nothing else, the result will bring into sharp focus the issues around the No 10 role and who should fill it, while also demanding an equally important answer to the question of what is Silva’s best formation going forward.
And yet, there are more problems than just how to get the best out of Sigurdsson and whether Calvert-Lewin’s industry, aerial ability and hold-up play are the right fit in the absence of reliable goals. Because Silva will hope that he never again sees an outing as bad from André Gomes — surely the ex-Barcelona man wasn’t fit — while the manager will surely have had it brought home to him that his right flank is now a vexing question without an immediate answer.
With Morgan Schneiderlin eligible again and preferred to Jean-Philippe Gbamin in central midfield (the Ivorian wasn’t in the squad suggesting he may have picked up a knock in training), this was the same starting XI that huffed and puffed its way through the first half at Crystal Palace without ever really looking like scoring. Nevertheless, they started well enough, asserting the kind of control over the contest that the vocal band of travelling Blues would have expected and having a decent shout for an early penalty waved away when Richarlison went down under a challenge from Grealish. Perhaps a touch of “your reputation precedes you, young man” but it wasn’t clear if there was VAR check involved.
The Brazilian then led another attack by going it alone with a surge through the middle but his eventual shot was charged down and Digne’s volley from the resulting corner was also blocked. That would be a theme of the evening for Everton but a couple of contrasting moments at either end perhaps told the story of the first hour of the match.
Encapsulating the Toffees’ lack of clinicality in the final third, Sigurdsson found himself with plenty of time and space outside the Villa penalty area on the 20-minute mark but delayed and eventually played a nothing ball into the box that was easily cleared away.
Two minutes later, Grealish’s quick thinking from a free-kick released Jota and he dissected the Everton defence with a perfect pass for Wesley who was allowed to ghost in by Michael Keane’s inattention to slide the ball past the stranded Jordan Pickford and make it 1-0. Just like that.
Mina, who was shaky at times and easily flustered, gave the ball away shortly afterwards with a poor header but he did well to recover ground and block Wesley’s shot before it could trouble his goalkeeper.
On the whole, as the first half wore on, Villa had emerged as the better side. They were quicker, sharper, hungrier and far more able to exploit the kind of space that they themselves were denying their opponents. Still, Everton had their moments and the best of them in the first 45 minutes came when Schneiderlin floated an excellent ball over the defence to Seamus Coleman, he centred back into the path of Calvert-Lewin who, meeting it at a central position in front of goal, looked odds-on to score. Unfortunately, though Tom Heaton was beaten, the covering defender on the line was there to hack it away.
That passage of play aside, there didn’t seem to be much point in persisting with the starting line-up beyond half-time but Silva kept faith with it and was “rewarded” with a continuation of the turgid fare he had witnessed since the 20-minute mark in the first period. Gomes popped up at the end of a nice move 10 minutes after the break where his attempted cut-back from the byline was cut out but, otherwise, the Portuguese was struggling through a terrible performance, summed up by two sloppy fouls in the middle of the park that, thankfully, weren’t punished and then a booking later in the second half for another transgression.
It wasn’t until the predictable changes on the hour mark that Everton finally came alive to a degree thanks to the introduction of Alex Iwobi for his first appearance since arriving from Arsenal and another cameo for Moise Kean. The introduction of the lively pair meant the removal of the ineffectual Sigurdsson — understandable and warranted — and Bernard, which was somewhat baffling as, apart from an uncharacteristically loose touch that led to Villa’s goal, he had been Silva’s best attacking player to that point.
While Kean offered movement playing off Calvert-Lewin, Iwobi brought trickery and a sense of purpose and though his first shot was deflected into Heaton’s grateful arms, his second came within a couple of inches of levelling the game. Digne had nodded the ball back across the box to the Nigerian who swivelled and shot but could only watch in agony as his effort came back off the post.
El Ghazi forced a parried save from Pickford as Villa made a rare foray forward trying to alleviate the mounting pressure on their goal but Everton kept coming and should have claimed a point from either of two excellent chances at the end.
First, Kean whipped a ball invitingly to Walcott who had the goal gaping in front of him but he sliced a volley horribly over the bar. Then Walcott turned provider from the other side of the box with a bouncing centre for Digne but on his weaker foot the Frenchman could only scoop an effort into the stand behind the goal.
There was time for the hosts to run salt into the wounds in the fifth minute of injury time as Wesley won the ball ahead of Mina in the middle of the park, found John McGinn and he played El Ghazi in past the lackadaisical Gomes to fire under Pickford and seal the points.
With the more attacking of Everton’s signings having come late in the window, there was always going to be an adjustment period at the start of the campaign where it was very much a case of last season’s team picking up where they had left off, minus Idrissa Gueye and Kurt Zouma. With the benefit of a positive run-in to 2018-19 and a full pre-season, the sense was that there was enough of a platform there to negotiate a modest opening set of fixtures before the new boys could settle in.
While the mundane draw at Palace was brushed off as the consequence of a rusty team readjusting to full throttle Premier League action, last weekend’s narrow win over Watford was greeted more with relief than any real sense of accomplishment. This trip to Villa was always going to be difficult but against a newly-promoted side, with the players at Silva’s disposal and with the ammunition off the bench, this was an eminently winnable game. Win it and buy another week for the new signings to bed in, perhaps with some first starts at Lincoln in the cup in midweek…
Instead of sitting on seven points — or even five, having at least ground out a draw — Everton will now reflect on their first loss of the season, one in which they failed to maintain a grip on the game and the team as a whole looked well short of this season’s top-six target.
More worrying was how impotent they looked trying to find their way through a Villa team that, with the cushion of their first goal, closed ranks quite effectively when they didn’t have the ball, that was until the excellent Iwobi and Kean began to create them problems late on.
That will increase the pressure on Sigurdsson who has thus far failed to really start the season at all while other elements of the post-match analysis will, perhaps, revolve around Richarlison, what his strengths are apart from popping up with important goals and where does he best fit into a team that still doesn’t seem to have found its best system.
Without getting too despondent about Everton’s Premier League prospects — it’s still early days and the final half an hour offered hope of better to come from the new attacking players but the sense of deja-vu is demoralising — the trip to Sincil Bank on Wednesday has brought on a more important air as you feel that the road to Wembley might have more joy in it than a slog for seventh or sixth place. To get there, however, Silva and coaching staff have plenty of work to do.
Everton travelled to Aston Villa for Friday night's live game on Sky Sports, and threw away a golden chance to show the country what the second-best defence in the Premier League looks like.
The Blues took on the newly-promoted Villains in the televised game looking to extend their excellent defensive form and add to the 3 points they picked up against Watford last Saturday.
But Marco Silva chose a very conservative line-up after his self-confessed risk-taking versus Watford. Morgan Schneiderlin had served his one-match suspension and returns, with Jean-Philippe Gbamin not featuring at all in the squad; Lossl was also absent, both injured in training during the week. New signings Iwobi, Sidibe and Kean were on the bench while Calvert-Lewin once again got to plough his thankless, goalless lone furrow up-front.
The game started brightly with Everton pressing but nothing would really go their way in the end. An early card for Guilbert, taking out Bernard as Everton were playing well enough, pushing up on Villa without creating any solid chances.
Everton were then caught sleeping when Jack Grealish played a quick free-kick out wide to Jota who jinked inside before sliding in a superb pass through to Wesley firing low past Pickford to open the scoring, despite Everton's early dominance.
Everton looked shakey as Mina headed straight to Grealish and Villa bore down on the Everton goal, Pickford forced to come out and block. Everton struggled to regain their composure, passing accuracy generally not good enough as the momentum swung in Villa's favour.
Everton worked the ball well Morgan Schneiderlin picking out the run of Seamus Coleman with a dinked pass into the box. The skipper pulls it back onto the penalty spot for a fantastic opportunity falling at the feet of Calvert-Lewin, but, rather than striking it with any force, he sidefooted it weakly straight at the keeper. Utterly pathetic attempt from the Everton No 9.
Slick passing from Villa allowed Guibert to surge forward but fire early and well over the Everton goal. It was all Everton could do to regain control of the game as they struggled to contain Villa's fast counters, Luiz claiming a trip by Coleman.
Everton defended the free-kick but Gomes then allowed the ball to bounce off him and out. Mina and Wesley were shouting at eachother, mutually upset about something.
Another quickly taken free-kick again had the ball well upfield, Grealish curling his shot wide of Pickford's goal. The last effort of the half kind of summed things up. Sigurdsson shooting at goal from 60 yards, and into Heaton's arms, because he had no other options.
Incredibly, no changes at half-time, the conservative Marco Silva sticking with the same and producing the same, ie, nothing for the first 15 minutes of the second half. Well, there was one half-decent attempt to get to the byline and win a corner, Mina heading over.
Slow build-up and Sigurdsson's lazy cross straight to a Villa head set up the Villians for yet another rapid counter, winning a free-kick, headed by Mings and fortunately back to Pickford. Villa attacked again, while Silva twiddled his thumbs, waiting for the requisite 60 mins as Gomes gave away another soft free-kick, driven in again to Mings, then Pickford collecting.
Silva had to give Kean and Iwobi a verbal dissertation before they could finally be allowed on in place of Sigurdsson and Bernard, far too late to save the game, with Calvert-Lewin remaining on the field! Barely 30- minutes left to resuce something from this trainwreck of a game.
Iwobi's first through ball was driven far too hard, and Villa were in possession again. Kean and Iwobi then combined well but ran out of steam when they reached the angle of the area, yet they won a corner, Mina heading wide but a corner called, claims for a handball denied. The second corner came to nothing, but at least Everton were recycling it better. Keane flicked on a long throw-in but it was well covered.
Everton pressed the massed defence back, Gomes trying to run at them but then playing the ball out behind Coleman, and Everton needing to do it all again. Build-up, however, was painfully laboured and Villa scampered away with it off the first loose pass.
A tricky ball in for Iwobi, he had to wait for it to bounce before firing it at defender, allowing Villa to regain possession and mount an attack as Taylor overhit his cross.
Kean gave away a nothing free-kick, defended well enough but Calvert-Lewin broke down the left but could not hold the ball. Iwobi and Digne combined better but no-one there to head in the cross. Walcott replaced as the final throw of the dice from Silva. A bit of a scramble in the box but no real pressure on Heaton, although another corner, taken by Richarlison and wellied hopelessly over by Schneiderlin.
Another quick free-kick saw the Villians running at Everton again, forcing Kean into another poor challenge as Everton were put under pressure. Gomes stopped the early free-kick this time at the expense of a yellow card.
Villa pressed really hard, Grealish almost dancing through, but Iwobi took up the ball and got Everton up the other end. Everton recirculate the ball, Iwobi shot onto the foot of the post, Heaton beaten, the rebound not reaching Mina.
Despite that scare, Villa were unfazed, El ghazi opening up on Pickford, who saved well, as the game was set for a lively finish. Trezeguet went down after stopping, Coleman trying to take a quick free-kick. Yellow cards for both was the chicken-shit decision from Michael Oliver.
With less than 5 minutes left, Everton had surely left it way too late, Silva's criminal instance on (a) a conservative line-up, and (b) waiting until 60+ mins to make changes, leaving them far too little time to change the game.
At the other end, EL Ghazi's shot took a wicked deflection, flying just over the bar. But little sign now that Everton would score as Iwobi did brilliantly to set up Walcott who sidefooted hopelessly well over the bar, an unbelievable lack of composure and control.
Into 5 minutes of added time as the game and the points trickled away from a hapless Everton side given an impossible task now to recovery from such a simple error after 20 minutes.
Lots of huffing and puffing at the end, Digne lashing the ball high over the bar. It was pretty sad really as the Villians celebrated as El Ghazi danced past Gomes as if he wasn't there at the death to seal it in the last minute. Absolutely abysmal from Everton.
Scorers: Wesley (21'), El Ghazi (90+5')
Aston Villa: Heaton, Engels, Mings, Guilbert [Y:5'], Taylor, McGinn, Luiz, Grealish, Trezeguet [Y:85'] (86' Elmohamady), Wesley, Jota (78' El Ghazi).
Subs not Used: Steer, Konsa, Hourihane, Lansbury, Davis.
Everton: Pickford, Coleman [Y:85'], Mina, Keane, Digne, Schneiderlin, Gomes [Y:80'], Richarlison (78' Walcott), Sigurdsson (62' Iwobi) , Bernard (62' Kean) , Calvert-Lewin [Y:52'].
Subs not Used: Stekelenburg, Holgate, Sidibe, Davies.
Referee: Michael Oliver
Everton travel to Aston Villa tomorrow night for English football's most-played fixure with top spot in the Premier league beckoning, if only for a few hours.
The Blues will take on the newly-promoted Villains in the Friday night televised game looking to extend their excellent defensive form and add to the three points they picked up against Watford last Saturday.
Marco Silva's side come into the game as the only top-flight team not to have conceded a goal in the first two matches of the new season, evidence that Yerry Mina has picked up where Kurt Zouma left off last term alongside Michael Keane.
And Silva has been buoyed by the news that both Lucas Digne and Leighton Baines have been passed fit for tomorrow evening. The Frenchman was withdrawn from Saturday's 1-0 win over Watford as a precautionary measure after he felt his hamstring but has suffered no reaction in the days since.
Baines, meanwhile, has recovered from an unspecified injury of his own that he picked up during pre-season and is available for the first time.
In addition, Silva has Morgan Schneiderlin at his disposal again after the French midfielder served a one-match suspension for picking up two yellow cards at Crystal Palace on the opening day. The Portuguese now needs to decide whether to restore Schneiderlin to the starting 11 or whether to continue with new signing Jean-Philippe Gbamin and in the middle alongside Andre Gomes.
“He will be available for the match,” Silva confirmed when asked during his press conference about Digne's availability. “Leighton will be also. It's just Fabian now who has a problem. It's possible [he will be] ready next week.
“He's already sessions with the team, not full sessions, but he has started with the team. It's possible next we will do full sessions with him and it will be a possibility for him to play a full match next week.”
While there is anticipation over whether or not Moise Kean will be selected to lead the line ahead of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Silva effectively ruled out a full debut for another of his new signings, Alex Iwobi. The Nigerian began his preparations for the new season late after returning from the Africa Cup of Nations and he is not deemed to be fully fit by Silva and his staff.
“For sure he is looking forward [to playing]. We are all looking forward to that but we know he started really late. It's only his second week working with the team. He didn't do pre-season so, if we can, we have to be careful with the situation, to give him enough time to get fitter.
“Of course, during the game is able to help us but not over the 90 minutes. But he's getting better and if I decide [to play him], he will be ready to give his high quality to us, I don't have doubts about that.”
Silva could go for continuity in his starting XI and keep his team unchanged as could Dean Smith. Kortney Hause is fit for the Midlanders but Jonathan Kodjia and James Chester are ruled out. Marvelous Nakamba, Frederic Guilbert and Matt Targett have all yet to make their debuts.
Villa lost 3-1 at Tottenham on the opening day and were beaten 2-1 at home to Bournemouth last weekend but Smith feels that his men are "creating chances, we just need to start taking them."
In contrast to Palace and, to a certain extent Watford, Villa are likely to be fairly expansive going forward and while that may threaten Everton's clean sheets record so far, it will hopefully also open up opportunities for the Toffees to hit them on the counter-attack.
Silva appears to want to bring Kean into the fold on a gradual basis but the Italian's cameo against Watford demonstrated that he is both physically and mentally ready for the English game. Calvert-Lewin is expected to start but it wouldn't be all that surprising to see Kean's name in the starting XI either, although that might be delayed until after the international break.
Kick off: 8pm, Friday 23 August, 2019
Referee: Michael Oliver
Last Time: Aston Villa 1 - 3 Everton
Predicted Line-up: Pickford, Coleman, Keane, Mina, Digne, Gomes, Gbamin, Sigurdsson, Bernard, Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin